60-Second Science

Rats Direct Inhalations for Smell Focus

Rats change the way air flows across the insides of their nostrils to direct the scent to the nasal region where it can be best detected. Gretchen Cuda Kroen reports

Imagine if you could focus your nose, the way you focus your eyes. Scientists now believe that animals with a highly developed sense of smell, like rats and dogs, do just that.

Similar to the way we taste sweet, salty, sour and bitter on different parts of the tongue, animals detect various smells in different parts of the nose. Researchers at the University of Chicago hypothesized that rats, by changing the way air flows across the insides of the nostrils, could direct the scent to the nasal region where it could be best detected. 

Turns out they were right. When presented with different odors, rats actually changed the way they sniffed. For example, long slow sniffs for hard to detect scents, or short fast ones for easy ones.

Rats even sniffed differently while learning a new scent than when the smell was familiar. The study is in the Journal of Neuroscience. [Daniel Rojas-Libano and Leslie M. Kay, Interplay between Sniffing and Odorant Sorptive Properties in the Rat]

The researchers say the finding shows that there’s more to a good sense of smell than originally thought. A sensitive nose is important, but so is how you use it.

—Gretchen Cuda Kroen

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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